Designated to protect the headwaters of the Wisconsin, Flambeau and Manitowish rivers, the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest encompasses more than 232,000 acres in northern Wisconsin. With over 900 lakes, miles of river, and dozens of free, first-come, first-served primitive campsites, paddle-camping opportunities are abundant for paddlers.
This upper Wisconsin River trip is one of the DNR’s six recommended routes located within the Forest and is unique for a couple reasons. First, it’s the most accessible option for paddle-camping on the Wisconsin River nearest its headwaters which begin 38 miles upstream at Lac Vieux Desert. Second, it transitions from river to lake paddling on the large Rainbow Flowage, and then back to an even livelier river. This naturally provides a varied 2-3 day paddle-camping adventure for those with moving water experience.
Paddling Style: Quietwater Paddling + Flatwater Paddling + River Paddling
Best Suited For: Canoes + Kayaks
Camping Location: Lakeside + Riverside
Availability: First-Come, First-Served Designated Sites
Paddle-in: Yes | Walk-in: No
Camping Fee: No | Camping Permit: No
There are seven remote primitive campsites on the upper Wisconsin. Three are located just before County Road O, one just after, one on an island on Rainbow Flowage and two more are located on the last 11.5 mile stretch after the dam. All sites are marked and numbered with yellow signs and are outfitted with a box latrine, picnic table and fire ring. They are all free and available on a first-come, first-served basis, but access to them must be by boat and camping is limited to one night.
Paddling The Upper Wisconsin River:
The first 6.5 miles on the Wisconsin begin as a narrow and heavily-wooded river. The current is usually steady, and there are many boulders in the stream to negotiate. The river widens on the approach to the County O bridge (and landing), after which the current slows upon entering the long and large Rainbow Flowage. The next 7 miles on the flowage are all flatwater, but you’ll likely encounter motorboat traffic especially mid-summer, so expect some wake.
After the flowage and required portage at the dam, there’s another 11.5 miles of traditional river paddling as the Wisconsin regains its narrower width. The current also regains momentum and in high water can be challenging for novice paddlers as there are many rocks and boulders to navigate, as well as one Class I called Rainbow Rapids (this is also where one of the primitive campsites is located). This last section has a remote-feel with very few houses along the way. Instead, you’re surrounded by high sand- and wooded banks. The river eventually slows near the take-out after a series of back-and-forth oxbows.
The fishing all along this trip is fantastic, so be sure to bring a pole to cast for the pike, walleye, musky, bass and many panfish that inhabit these waters.